Thursday, February 28, 2008

1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars

Not exactly on immigration but perhaps apropos to nativism and hatred, The New York Times reports that we are incarcerating more people today than at any point in our history. We also incarcerate more people than any other country.

For the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars, according to a new report.

Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars.

Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.

The report, from the Pew Center on the States, also found that only one in 355 white women between the ages of 35 and 39 are behind bars but that one in 100 black women are. …

It cost an average of $23,876 dollars to imprison someone in 2005, the most recent year for which data were available. But state spending varies widely, from $45,000 a year in Rhode Island to $13,000 in Louisiana.

The cost of medical care is growing by 10 percent annually, the report said, and will accelerate as the prison population ages.

About one in nine state government employees works in corrections, and some states are finding it hard to fill those jobs. California spent more than $500 million on overtime alone in 2006.

"1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study Says," by Adam Liptak, The New York Times, (February 28, 2008)

And when we have finished incarcerating everyone who will be left to guard the jails? What does it say about us as a society that we choose to incarcerate so many of our fellow citizens? No other industrialized society comes close to incarcerating as many of our own as does the United States. Is there a willful blindness borne of the fact that the imprisoned cannot be seen or heard? Are we able to sleep more soundly at night knowing that so many voiceless human beings waste away behind bars? Does the high incarceration rate help us to progress as a community?

Pew Report Link:

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Globalization, NAFTA and immigration

Immigration and emigration between Mexico and the United States is driven by a complex set of forces. These forces are the result of economic and political policies put in place by the United States and Mexico. One such element is the maquiladora program which essentially expands the borders for U.S. manufacturing concerns deep into Mexico. Under this program, American corporations are allowed to transfer their manufacturing facilities to Mexico and pay pitifully low wages and send the finished goods back to the U.S. market without tariffs or other duties leveled on importers from other countries. In almost all respects this is a losing proposition for Mexico and most critically for Mexican workers.

It is ironic to hear so much nativist cant about the so-called loss of control of our borders when American companies enjoy the benefits of an expanded economic zone in Mexico without the burdens of U.S. regulation, wages or environmental concerns. Simply by placing a manufacturing plant 50 feet across the border from the United States, American companies are able to produce manufactured goods while paying their workers less than $5.00 a day. When you consider that manufacturing jobs in the United pay about $12.00 an hour this expansion of U.S. borders greatly benefits U.S. corporations.

Whenever I hear nativists talk about the “integrity of our borders” I often wonder what borders they are referencing. For U.S. concerns taking advantage of Mexican workers, the borders have little relevance to their operations except insofar as they lock Mexican workers to jobs that do not pay subsistence wages. The wall being built on the U.S.-Mexico border will not keep American corporations from moving their operations south of the border. But, Mexican workers will constantly be reminded that the wall is symbol to hypocrisy.

Globalization is a lose-lose proposition

I once supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other free trade pacts in the hope that freer trade would raise the tide for all nations and help equalize wages between nations. I now believe that the critics of globalization were absolutely right. Globalization not only displaces local economies but it opens up weak markets to rapacious global corporations who then wreak havoc on local producers. Globalization is a lose-lose proposition for developing markets (and also for U.S. workers).

Nativist anger at undocumented workers is misplaced. If nativists really cared about U.S. jobs and the welfare of the American worker they would focus the intensity of their anger at U.S. corporations and the politicians that do their bidding. It is these corporations that ship American jobs abroad and the politicians that make their actions possible and this is where their actions should be focused. But as we have noted before, most nativist anger has little to do with jobs or borders and more to do with hatred against Latinos. One need only peruse the dominant Nativist site, and its links to other sites, to see the hateful vitriol that is spewed not just against immigrants but also against Latinos and other minorities.

Maquiladoras employ about a million Mexican workers at $4.65 a day

The impact of the maquiladora program on Mexico and on Mexican and U.S. workers is enormous. There are over 3000 manufacturing plants, most of them American companies, now located in Mexico. Maquiladoras, today employ about a million Mexican workers. The overwhelming majority of these workers labor at the Mexican minimum wage, which at today’s exchange rate is $4.65 a day. Keep in mind that the cost of food in Mexico is comparable to or higher to the prices of food in the United States.

It is not a far stretch to argue that each job taken by a maquiladora is one less American job. At prevailing U.S. manufacturing wages (which have been falling) this is one family’s salary.

What does this have to do with emigration from Mexico? For starters, the maquilas have drawn workers to the Mexican border areas simply because that is where the jobs are to be found. Ciudad Juarez went from a small city of 200,000 in 1965 to well over 2,000,000 today. This population cannot be sustained on the maquilas alone and hence there is a push factor from these cities. Given the dismal wages paid by the maquilas, many workers find work across the border much more attractive.

The maquilas receive almost no industrial support from Mexican manufacturers (meaning Mexican manufacturers get no benefit from these companies) and pay almost no taxes. As such, they contribute little to the Mexican economy and likely even fail to pay for the infrastructure that supports them. Given the lack of revenues from these enterprises the Mexican state has little incentive to provide social services, or even basic infrastructure such as roads, sewage systems or clean water supplies to its people. This also provides a push factor from Mexico.

The situation and possible remedial factors were outlined by Simon Chandler of the Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas.

The maquiladora industry grew steadily since its establishment in 1965. But the really strong growth occurred in the years following the signing of the NAFTA agreement in 1994. NAFTA was an agreement which set out to create a free trade zone between Canada, the US, and Mexico. It allowed the free movement of good, services, and capital. But not labor. The European Union (EU), formerly known as the European Community, and before that the European Economic Community, has also established a free trade area. But with the major difference that labor is as free to move as goods, services, and capital. So, as it stands today, a person in Greece or Portugal can freely move to Germany or France to work, or study, or just live. Or vice-versa. Whilst there, the person can use all the health and social services that that country offers to its own citizens. Originally, the European Union was composed or 5 or 6 Western European countries. When nations such as Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Greece applied to join the EU in the early 1970s there was quite an income disparity between the member countries and the applicants. So as part of the economic integration process, the richer countries provided grants to the poorer countries to allow them to develop infrastructure, invest in industry and education, and do other things that would help develop their economies. There were fears that with the free movement of labor that the population of Portugal and Greece would simply relocate to France or Germany where both wages and benefits were substantially higher than in their own countries. But that has not happened. The industrial development strategy has been quite successful and allowed the poorer countries to build stronger economies. Countries like Ireland and Spain have been experiencing economic growth like never before.

This is an important lesson. There is an underlying perception that if the US opened its southern border, the whole of Latin America would enter and swamp the country. But our experience here at Annunciation House, working with migrant sand refugees has taught us something. It has taught us that the decision to migrate to another country is not an easy one to make. To uproot one's life, leaving behind family, friends, and one's culture is a wrenching decision that most people would prefer not to have to make. Migration is caused by poverty, desperation, and oppression. A country that provides a standard of living where people have enough food to eat, are able to get healthcare and an education for themselves and their children, and where people do not fear their government, does not generally experience mass emigration. But it is this poverty, desperation, and oppression that causes thousands of people to cross the southern border of the US and has led to over 2,700 deaths over the past 10 years as migrants have tried to enter the US. Mexico has an economy comparable in size to the state of Ohio. How hard would it have been to have included in NAFTA a component to allow Mexico to develop its economy and bring about some kind of economic stability to the country? How hard would it have been to provide supports to a Mexican agricultural system that is at the point of collapse and could see millions of people leaving the land in the next few years? (emphasis added)

Until these structural deficits are addressed we will continue to have migration of undocumented Mexican and Latin American workers into the United States. While it is certainly true that Mexicans need to pressure their government for needed reforms the United States cannot pretend that a long wall will solve the immigration problem. Globalization needs to be addressed on this side of the border by the workers whose livelihood is being decimated just as it needs to be addressed by Mexican and Latin American workers.

Further Resources

American Friends Service Committee ( Has a national program, Project Voice—Migration and Mobility Unit, that works to strengthen the voices of immigrant-led organizations in setting the national agenda for immigration policy and immigrants’ rights.

American Immigration Lawyers Association ( A legal association for immigration attorneys with a membership of more than 10,000 immigration lawyers. AILA provides an immigration lawyer referral service on its website.

Border Action Network ( A network of immigrants and border residents in Nogales, Douglas, and Tucson, Arizona, working to amplify the voices and power of those who are most impacted by border and immigration policies.

Breakthrough, international human rights organization that uses media, education and pop culture to promote values of dignity, equality and justice:

Campaign for Labor Rights ( Mobilizes grassroots support throughout the United States for campaigns to end labor rights violations around the world.

CoaliciĆ³n de Derechos Humanos ( A grassroots organization working to promote respect for human and civil rights and to fight militarization, discrimination, and abuse of authority in the southern border region.

Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras( A tri-national coalition of religious, environmental, labor, Latino, and women’s organizations supporting worker and community struggles in the maquiladora industry.

Detention Watch Network ( A national coalition addressing the crisis of immigration detention and helping detainees and their loved ones make their voices heard.

Families for Freedom (
A multi-ethnic defense network by and for immigrants facing and fighting deportation.

Farmworker Justice ( An organization working to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers by improving their living and working conditions, immigration status, health, occupational safety, and access to justice.

Global Workers Justice Alliance ( A cross-border network of worker advocates and resources that combats migrant worker exploitation by promoting portable justice for transnational migrants.

Immigration Equality ( A national organization working to end immigration discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and HIV-positive people, and to help win asylum for those persecuted based on sexual identity or HIV status.

Life or Liberty, a non-profit media project begun in 2002 to produce documentaries on immigrant communities affected by post-9/11 policies. The project has produced award-winning short documentaries for grassroots organizing and educational outreach:

Maquila Solidarity Network (
A labor and women’s rights advocacy organization promoting solidarity with grassroots groups in Mexico, Central America, and Asia, that works to improve conditions in maquiladora factories and export processing zones.

Migration Policy Institute (MPI), "independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to the study of the movement of people worldwide":

National Employment Law Project ( Provides information and advocacy in defense of low-wage workers, including immigrant workers.

National Immigration Law Center ( Provides information, policy analysis, and advocacy in defense of low-income immigrants and their family members.

National Immigration Project ( A project of the National Lawyers’ Guild, Inc. devoted to defending the rights of immigrants facing incarceration and deportation.

National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights ( A national organization bringing together immigrant, refugee, community, religious, civil rights, and labor organizations and activists from around the United States in defense of immigrant rights.

Pew Hispanic Center (PHC), "nonpartisan research organization [whose] mission is to improve understanding of the U.S. Hispanic population and to chronicle Latinos' growing impact on the entire nation":

Rights Working Group ( A nationwide coalition of groups and individuals committed to protecting civil liberties and human rights.

SweatFree Communities ( A national network assisting sweatshop workers globally in their struggles to improve working conditions and form strong, independent unions.

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), "a data gathering, data research and data distribution organization associated with Syracuse University...information about federal enforcement, staffing and spending":

U.S. / Labor Education in the Americas Project ( Works to support the basic rights of workers in Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico, especially those who are employed directly or indirectly by U.S. companies.

United Students Against Sweatshops ( An organization of students and community members at over 200 campuses around the United States, supporting the struggles of working people and challenging corporate power.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

The Economic Revitalization of Cities by Immigrants

Professional nativist Lou Dobbs is famous for making outlandish claims regarding immigrants. Perhaps his most famous whopper was his claim that immigrants were responsible for 7,000 cases of leprosy in the preceding three years. In fact, the actual number was 7,000 cases of leprosy in the last thirty years. As well, Dobbs stated that a third of all prisoners were “illegal aliens.” The Justice Department correctly notes that only 6% of the federal prison population are non-citizens (many of them incarcerated for immigration related offenses). What Dobbs and others of his ilk are promoting is a hate agenda that seeks to demonize immigrants – especially undocumented workers. The reason Dobbs and the nativist fringe are able to peddle such lies is that they play to the prejudices of a portion of the U.S. population. The picture of the immigrant community in the U.S. is considerably more complex and contrary to the stereotypes foisted on the public by the nativists.

Speaking from personal experience I reside in a community that is rich with immigrants and diversity. I can cross the street and buy fresh fruits and vegetables at the Korean vegetable stand. They cater to a Latin American clientele and will stock prickly pair cactus – the juicy fruit of my youth. Around the corner is a Halaal market whose proprietors are from Somalia. A Mexican Butcher shop provides some of the finest meats that I have ever tasted, no pre-packaged cellophane sterility here. Various Vietnamese markets provide all manner of great produce, fresh fish and the juiciest roast ribs and duck. A Salvadorean bakery makes wonderful corn-meal pupusas and sweet baked goods, like their famous tres leches cake (three-milk cake). My Brazilian friend has turned a dilapidated skating rink into a world-class soccer-training facility. He also operates a Brazilian restaurant where you can dine on black beans and rice with succulent meats. Our accountant is Colombian but if you wanted a Vietnamese or Eritrean accountant you could easily find one. The array of products and services that this diverse community provides is astounding. I find this smorgasbord of diversity quite wonderful.

This community was not always wonderful. A decade ago, it would have been foolish to walk alone at night. The streets were the domain of drunks, thieves, prostitutes and drug addicts. As immigrants have arrived the area has become safer and more vital economically. Where once bars, porn shops and pawn shops predominated now we have markets, computer repair stores, restaurants, video stores and cafes. Most of these businesses have been opened by recent immigrants from Asia, African and Latin America. The neighborhood has literally been revitalized by the very people so much reviled by Dobbs.

Immigrant entrepreneurs are playing a similar role in revitalizing cities around the country

There are no lepers in this community and very few of the criminals arrested are immigrants. Around the corner from me is a small store-front mosque where immigrants from the horn of Africa go to worship. They are a proud people who have seen war and devastation. In their stead they have brought safety and order to this community. They walk with their families, shop at the local markets and contribute economically to what used to be an impoverished area. The same is true of the Latin Americans and Asians who have also opened businesses and who also make this a community where kids can play and families can shop without fear of being set upon by thugs. As the immigrants have increased so the crime rate has dropped. This is now one of the safer neighborhoods in the City – much safer than areas with few if any immigrants.

Immigrant-owned businesses … run the gamut from professional services to high-growth technology companies

The nativist mind-set will not process this information as proof that immigrants are a force for good. They will retort that these immigrants – whether documented or undocumented – are stealing jobs from native-born Americans. Never mind that the immigrants have taken over dilapidated buildings and converted them into vital businesses. If the immigrant thrives he is stealing native bread. If the immigrant fails he is a drag on society. Yet none of these businesses would exist were it not for the entrepreneurial actions of the new-comers. In the nativist mind, bigotry rules and judgment and reason give way to hatred.

Lake Street was a “problem neighborhood,” known for prostitution and drug crime… “Now, everybody wants to be here”

This revitalization phenomenon is not unique to this community. In Minneapolis, a city rich with a creative class and a culture of tolerance, the south side of the City has been revitalized by immigrants. Where once blocks and blocks of abandoned buildings gave shelter to criminals, there exist vital markets, restaurants and businesses, both “ethnic” and “white.” The initial impetus for this revitalization came from Mexican immigrants who took over an abandoned building and built small businesses requiring a minimum of capital. Others saw the success of the Mexican Mercado and then African markets and International markets started to flourish. Rather than being a drain on the City, these businesses provided badly needed jobs and new sources of revenue for the City. If you want to learn more check out these sites:

Reviving South Minneapolis, by Reese Fayde (The Next American City)

The change wrought by these immigrant entrepreneurs is here described by Reese Fayde:

On a Saturday in early June, more than 10,000 Minneapolis residents celebrated the official opening of the Midtown Global Market, the centerpiece of a decade-long, $190 million, 1.2-million square foot transformation of the former Sears Tower on Lake Street in south Minneapolis.

The tower is the city’s largest building, originally built in the 1920s. It stood empty for a decade, after Sears closed its Lake Street operation in 1994. Now the Global Market, a collection of around 30 immigrant-run businesses, occupies the tower’s first floor. Luxury lofts, a corporate headquarters, and a Sheraton Hotel will sit above. In ethnic markets like the new Global Market, immigrants are playing a crucial role in the revitalization of south Minneapolis. Parts of Lake Street once bordered the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the city. Now property values in south Minneapolis are up, businesses are moving in, and the street corners are bustling with tourists and shoppers. Manny Gonzalez, owner of Manny’s Tortas—which serves gourmet Mexican sandwiches piled high with steak, onions, and jalapenos—recalls that, when he first moved to Minneapolis from Mexico City in the early 1980s, Lake Street was a “problem neighborhood,” known for prostitution and drug crime. In 1999, when he and a group of immigrant business owners formed the Mercado Central, another ethnic market in the area, rents were still cheap—around $9 per square foot for retail space. But retail rents are currently up to $15 or $16 per square foot, and he expects the price to continue to rise. “Now, everybody wants to be here,” he says.

Immigrant entrepreneurs are playing a similar role in revitalizing cities around the country. Immigrant-owned businesses still include traditional restaurants and groceries like Manny’s Tortas. But they also run the gamut from professional services to high-growth technology companies. As Mayor Michael Bloomberg quipped in recent Congressional testimony on immigration, it is “pure fantasy” to imagine life in a major city without immigrants. According to Michael Porter, chairman of the Boston-based Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, they change the face of entrepreneurship in inner cities, providing “a much-needed shot of economic vibrancy to distressed neighborhoods.” And yet few urban communities have actively sought and supported immigrant entrepreneurs as a revitalization tactic.

Minneapolis, however, is a remarkable example of a city that has not only taken steps to incubate immigrant-owned businesses, but has also taken a more holistic approach to reviving areas like the Lake Street corridor, integrating the work of private foundations and community organizations to increase public transportation, expand affordable housing options, improve public education, and expand civic engagement. While Latino immigrants have paved the way for improvements in places like Mercado Central and Plaza Verde, Hmong (Laos), Somali and Oromo (Ethiopia and, to a lesser extent, Kenya) immigrants have started their own companies, further cementing the unique economic, social and cultural role of immigrant entrepreneurs in the revitalization of Midtown Minneapolis.

Reviving South Minneapolis, by Reese Fayde (The Next American City)

In my community most of the revitalization has taken place by immigrants with little or no support from non-profits or governmental agencies. This experience is consistent with the fact that creative class cities – places of tolerance – are the ones to benefit from this immigrant revitalization. So while nativists peddle hate, good people are building communities, raising families, attending church and bringing life to once moribund areas. Immigrants have always played this role and in the mythology of our country we celebrate them. It’s time to stop the nativist claptrap and speak the reality that immigrants are a vital and positive force in our country.

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Friday, February 8, 2008

A Window into a Community

Both of my parents are from Mexico and they are both evangelical Christians. My father was an early convert to Protestantism having been raised by an Evangelical pastor in Mexico. As a young man he immigrated to this country and worked at a factory in Nebraska. He absorbed the blue-collar pro-union politics of his co-workers. He remains a blue-collar Democrat to this day voting Democrat no matter how powerful and unremitting the exhortations of his evangelical pastor on behalf of Republicans.

My mother has contributed mightily to the coffers of Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell. While living at home, I read the right-wing missives of these heralds of god. My mother is a hard-core, right-wing evangelical voter. She will vote the party ticket as laid down by Pat Robertson and his ilk. Given the extreme polarity between my father’s views and those of my mother, they rarely talk politics. The intolerance is entirely on the part of my mother who refuses to countenance political debate of any kind – especially with the left-wing views to which my father subscribes.

The only time a political discussion opens up in our family is when I visit my parents. My father and I naturally grouse about the lousy political state of things. We carry this on until my mother joins us and I egg him on to needle her. She shushes my father up and unless I change the direction of the discussion she leaves us alone in the kitchen to drink our coffee and share our views.

My dad reads the local English-language newspaper and watches the local and national news on the English language stations. My mother does not read newspapers but she might watch some of the local news. They both watch Spanish-language television which is ubiquitous in the border area where they reside. Few of their political views are influenced by Spanish language television especially given its constant glitter shows and sensationalistic news coverage. The only other source of political news for either of my parents is the evangelical church that they attend and the numerous flyers sent to them by evangelical organizations such as The 700 Club.

Norquist says. "Oddly enough, people resent the idea that you might throw their mother out of the country."

My sister retired from the U.S. Air Force and currently works for Lockheed-Martin. Her political views might be described best as moderately left-of-center. Her religious views are more in line with those of my parents. Her children speak three languages.

My political views are considerably more nuanced than those of my parents or of my sister. Spanish is my first language and I attended the first few years of grade school in Mexico. Eventually, I made my way to an elite Eastern school and today my views are influenced by the New York Times, Harpers, and The New Yorker as well as by a number of political blogs and other websites.

We have extended family in Mexico. My uncles visit the U.S. at least once a year. We have big barbeques and check out all the second-hand stores for goods that are prohibitively expensive in Mexico.

I have family members who are in this country working without legal documents. They pay taxes, shop at American stores and abide by the laws of this country. Were it not for their undocumented status they would be considered model citizens. Should they be stopped or apprehended by agents of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, (ICE) they would be summarily deported.

It should be pretty clear that as an informed citizen and given my experiences, I would not be particularly enthusiastic about the Republican Party’s nativist anti-immigrant policies. Republican strategist Grover Norquist, a top ally of Karl Rove, believes that the "vicious" rhetoric by GOP candidates could prompt Hispanics to flee "in droves" to the Democrats. "Talking about a strong border is one thing," Norquist says. "It's when you get into enforcing the law — which means deport — that you lose people's votes. Oddly enough, people resent the idea that you might throw their mother out of the country." I could not have put it better myself.

So what does this have to do with the price of tortillas? Namely, that the Republican apparatchiks have been using the anti-immigrant issue as their wedge issue of choice – kind of like the gay marriage issue of 2008. Unfortunately, it is not yielding returns for them. Any redneck who hates Mexicans is not going to put a Hillary or Obama bumper sticker on his pickup and if he votes he will likely vote R despite the nativist rhetoric. There are, however, like the Iraq war, unintended consequences. The nativist rancor has given the racist right cover to push their agenda of hate. As well, the Latino community has more reasons to say adieu to the Republican Party.

The last point is not without consequence. In the last two presidential elections, George Bush was able to make real inroads into the Hispanic vote. In one election he got fully 40% of the Latino vote. No Republican would dream of getting 40% of the African-American vote. At one point, the Latino community was actually in play between the Dems and the Reps. Not so today. If my experience is illustrative of any dynamic, it is that while we – the Latino community -- are not focused on one issue we are quite aware who is behind the current climate of hate. And we are not going to forget. Nor will my evangelical mother.

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